The new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” — distinguished here from the 1990 classic of the same title, and oh but how the odometer does spin — is borderline watchable, despite what every bone in your body would tell you to expect.
Michael Bay, one of the movie’s producers, has made a recent career of exhuming ’80s kids’ childhood memories so as to drench them with napalm, splatter them with pixels and charge admission to their immolation. Watching his “Transformers” franchise is like being thrown into a running dryer full of lit fireworks. His take on the turtles also skews bombastic (who the hell else would even bother to make them bulletproof?) while the story itself is thin enough to wrap leftovers in.
Yet it all skips along without a care, packed with quality fighting, jokes that land, viscerally expressive turtles, some actual pathos. These turtles are just teens, you see, even if they are mutant ninjas.
Megan Fox stars as April O’Neil, a greenhorn broadcast reporter who’s more interested in large-scale chemical hijackings by a criminal outfit called the Foot than the fluffy garbage her bosses send her to cover. She gets a whiff of a vigilante response to the Foot and discovers, on her lonesome, that the criminal syndicate is being thwarted by a quartet of enormous talking reptiles.
This draws the attention of a shady captain of industry who has been pursuing the Foot after losing his science lab, including April’s father, to a fire years earlier. Spoiler alert, he’s played by William Fichtner, so you pretty much know already that he may not be, like, the best good guy ever.
The nominal villain, the Shredder, is played by someone enormous named Tohoru Masamune and is mostly encased in a samurai outfit composed of all the sharpest chrome parts of a restaurant supply store. He stomps everyone he fights, including the person-sized rat, Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub), who adopted and trained all the turtles as they mutated through infancy and tweenhood. You hate to see Shredder whup the kindly old sensei but, then again, sewer rat and all. Will Arnett plays Megan Fox’s news sidekick, along the way proving anew that “Arrested Development” stars deserve more work.
This is, technically, a comic book movie: Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird conceived of these heroes in the early ’80s as what could’ve been another obscure title on a rack still crowded with pulpy paper, in the days before home video game consoles really blasted off. For whatever reason — not least, the gonzo joy of their very title — the turtles broke out into a merchandizing bonanza: Saturday morning cartoon, wildly popular action figures, a decent live-action movie starring Jim Henson creatures (followed by degrading sequels), video games, a cereal, Halloween costumes, all the rest. They subsided after having run their course, but, like Star Wars, even between sequels and TV adaptations, they never quite went away.
The sheer quantity of TMNT-themed commerce weighs on the story, of course. As in the original movie, Raphael, the most popular turtle, gets his own little subplot. The turtles appear in their tricked-out ride, the Party Wagon, just long enough to encourage all children who want to fire tiny missiles out of plastic van to look ahead for the inevitable toy. Pester your parents, kiddos! These hulking, gnarly turtles are ready to fight a billion battles in sandboxes and bathtubs and minivan backseats. Their personalities, sketched only quickly in this incarnation. Another 10 minutes given to them talking and hanging out would have done wonders for this movie, to shade their characters, to show us why we should care.
But then, maybe that hard work of storytelling has been 30 years in the making. By now, we’re into stories about turtle ninja teenage mutants or we’re not.